Book Review: Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald – “hugely readable, yet endlessly thought-provoking”

 

Reading Helen Macdonald’s 2014 book H is for Hawk was highly memorable for me. As I wrote in my review, “this is a book which makes one look afresh at man’s links with nature. In a time when we are rightly focused on global, big-picture problems, it nevertheless reminds us of the values we derive from being individually and inextricably bound to our own heritage and community”.

Macdonald’s latest work, Vesper Flights continues on the same theme, this time expanding on the glory and importance of our differences in a collection of vivid and powerful essays:

“I hope that this book works a little like a ‘Wunderkammer’ [a cabinet of curiosities]. It is full of strange things and it is concerned with the quality of wonder…..Most of all I hope my work is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognise and love difference. The attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those that are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things.”

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Life (with gulls) is a rollercoaster

Caution: this post is a story of highs and lows. If you are of a nervous disposition, please click away now.

Regular readers will recall that Hub and I have been gull-watching over the last few months. In my last post on this topic, I was delighted to be able to report on the hatching of three chicks. Nature being what she is, however, matters did not progress very smoothly thereafter.

A few days after the chicks had emerged, we had 36 hours or so of 60-70mph winds. Not the strongest we have ever experienced, but still forceful, especially if you are a very small, days-old little bird living on an exposed chimney stack.  So we went from being able to see this…..

 

….. to this:

 

Oh no! Could it be true that none of the chicks had survived the storm? Poor them. Poor parents. The adults could be seen wheeling and calling. Were they looking for their lost offspring? We couldn’t really tell what was going on, but felt sure that the whole brood must have been lost.

After a few days, just when we assumed that all hope was lost, Hub spotted this:

 

Hooray!! How wonderful to see that this little button had survived. We watched it clamber up and down, back and forth across the roof, trying to bridge the edge of the flashing to get on to the flat part but it was as yet too small. Only a matter of time we thought.

And then it vanished again. For 10 days or so, we could see no sign of the chick. Again, we assumed that it must have been hunted from that very open aspect, or perhaps had fallen off the roof. But we had not reckoned on its ability to survive. Having clung on through the storm, a few roof tiles and various hunting birds were clearly not going to get the better of this little fighter.

He must have been out of sight behind the chimney breast or on another part of the roof for a while, because, just when we were starting to persuade ourselves that something had happened to it, we saw this:

 

Woo hoo – a happy ending to this rollercoaster saga, the tale of which could be finished off by only one thing:

 

Come, on wings of joy we’ll fly…*

When I was writing about our holiday on the Western Isles recently, I promised a guest post from Hub about the amazing nature photos he was able to take. Sit back and enjoy…. 🙂


I had always promised myself that when I retired I would treat myself to a prime telephoto lens.  Photography is something I have always enjoyed, but for me the challenge is to capture moving things.  My two main subjects are steam locomotives or nature photography, principally birds.  Steam Engines will let you get as close as you like without being the slightest bit concerned.  You can do what you like to a steam engine, and it will contentedly sit there simmering away.  Birds on the other hand are skittish things that will, at the first real sight of you, fly away; unless it is the companionable robin or a pigeon (who is a scavenger always on the make).   Birds also, rather annoyingly, like to flaunt their ability to reach high places.  They will perch just out of range of a standard telephoto or zoom lens.  I can tell they are looking down on me, smugly, pitying my attempts to get a good shot of them.  So my long held promise to myself was fulfilled when I took possession of a 500mm telephoto lens.

 

 

So grand is the lens that it has its own reinforced case in which it lives most of the time.  It needs its own carrying strap.  It requires a tripod, with a specialist gimbal head to make it easy to use.  It is big and declares itself as a lens that needs deference and attention.  It is a joy to use and own.

Editor’s note: to give you a sense of scale, here is a photo I took of Hub with his new baby…

 

Liz has written about our holiday in the Western Isles, starting in Skye, moving to Harris and then to South Uist.  This would be the proving ground for my new pride and joy.   Our first location just outside of Portree in Skye was stunning.  Within an hour of arriving I was startled to see two Golden Eagles gently flying along the ridge on which the property stood.  Seeing a Golden Eagle at eye level is not something that happens often.  I don’t think I have ever set up a camera and tripod so fast.

I didn’t think we would see Golden Eagles again, but in fact we saw them every day of the two weeks we were there.  As if to say that the Goldies shouldn’t have it all their own way, White Tailed Eagles (also known as Sea Eagles) decided also to pay a visit. So good was the sightings of birds that despite our intention to spend much time travelling around Skye, we stayed at the property on most days, waiting for the eagles to arrive.  It was such a privilege to see them at all, even as specks in the sky high up, but at close quarters a rare honour.

The images in the slide show below are some of the images that I took from my vantage point on the decking outside the property and a few from our time on Harris and South Uist.  I have included some of the smaller birds, whose perching high up or by the water’s edge gave them no hiding place.   All truly beautiful.

 

 

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You can see more of Hub’s photos, including more nature photography and plenty of steam trains on his Flickr page.

 

*The title of this post is from William Blake’s poem, The Birds:

He. Where thou dwellest, in what grove,
Tell me Fair One, tell me Love;
Where thou thy charming nest dost build,
O thou pride of every field!
She. Yonder stands a lonely tree,
There I live and mourn for thee;
Morning drinks my silent tear,
And evening winds my sorrow bear.

He. O thou summer’s harmony,
I have liv’d and mourn’d for thee;
Each day I mourn along the wood,
And night hath heard my sorrows loud.

She. Dost thou truly long for me?
And am I thus sweet to thee?
Sorrow now is at an end,
O my Lover and my Friend!

He. Come, on wings of joy we’ll fly
To where my bower hangs on high;
Come, and make thy calm retreat
Among green leaves and blossoms sweet.

The View From Here… (Part Three)

We are on the third and final leg of our wonderful month-long holiday in the Scottish Hebridean islands (see here and here for my brief posts about the first two parts).

After a fascinating time on the Isle of Harris, we came south yesterday via North Uist and Benbecula to South Uist. And what a contrast it is. As you can see from the picture above, it is much flatter. There is a mountainous region to the east of the island (you can just about see the peaks in the distance), but as you can see from the map below, it is low-lying, fertile marshland in the west where we are staying.

Continue reading “The View From Here… (Part Three)”